For: Gerry Gold
ANTH 4200 6.0H
CULTURES OF THE WEB
March 27, 1998
By: Kristina Day
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Communities encountering internal conflict will, depending upon the severity of the problem, resort to a vast array of possible solutions. Physical, geographical communities in Canada have at their disposal various governmental, institutional, cultural and religious facilities which provide services of reconciliation, judgement, incarceration, and other means of dealing with individuals or groups within a community whose actions are contrary to custom or law. Virtual communities in Usenet, however, have no access to external recourse unless the misdeed is extreme, and even then results are not always guaranteed. Consequently, within Usenet newsgroups one finds many alternative methods of problem solving and enforcement of community rules, including FAQs, flaming, and kill-filing, to name a few.
I have been an active member of the Usenet newsgroup alt.vampyres since November 1997. In this time, I have been a witness to and a participant in several long and drawn-out flame wars. These conflicts caused a great deal of divisiveness and threatened to destroy all sense of community; instead, however, they strengthened that sense, causing the group to redefine itself to ensure that a similar lack of internal cohesion could not happen again in the future. This entire episode resulted in two major actions taken by certain members of the group; the first was a revision of the alt.vampyres FAQ (a list of Frequently Asked Questions about the group’s purpose and about vampires overall) , and the second was the creation of a new Usenet newsgroup, alt.culture.vampires.
The conflict which caused so much turmoil in alt.vampyres began before my arrival in the group, with the appearance of individuals who claimed to be real vampires and who posted to the group their explanations for vampirism. Writing in character as a vampire is not frowned upon in alt.vampyres, as is stated in the FAQ: “The people on this group who write as if they were vampyres, are not intending to mislead anyone; they are doing it purely for entertainment, creating a sort of interactive story in this group” . Even claiming to be a real vampire may not draw flames if the individual does not attempt to preach his or her version of the truth; it may, however, cause a flurry of questions, and the vampire may find he or she has been added to a growing list of “real vampires” kept by Baby Jinx, an alt.vampyres regular . Similarly, posting one’s personal beliefs concerning the nature of vampirism is welcomed only if those beliefs are not presented as the one and only truth. In essence, what angered the alt.vampyres community was not that these individuals claimed to be vampires, but the manner in which they posted their beliefs, and the subsequent way in which they responded to the group’s questions and criticisms. For example, on several occasions Winged Wolf posted a long document containing her beliefs. It was statements such as “The thing that makes a person a vampyr is essentially a symbiotic, psychic ‘lifeform’. If you feed it, it grows more powerful, and changes you more. If you do not, it grows weaker, and feeds off you”  which, on each occasion when she posted the document, caused a flame war to erupt. Group members demanded that she either provide indisputable scientific proof for her claims, or stop presenting them as fact:
...What gets my goat is when these people write rambling fiction and call it scientific research, boast that they know the Real(tm) Truth(tm), claim to have proof but refuse to provide it when asked, run around the internet and set up websites so that they can spread their delusions and seek converts, whine and cry and get upset when someone with a modicum of intelligence and independent thought challenges their delusion, etc.
Believing something is one thing. Keep your beliefs to yourself if they border on delusional, and no one has anything on you. Evangelizing it is something else. If someone expects the right to harangue others with their delusions, they must harangue with the knowledge that those others can and will question them diligently and may even write them off as either liars or mental flakes .
It is possible, perhaps even likely, that had these “truthsayers” either initially posted their beliefs as hypotheses rather than fact, or revised them after encountering opposition, no internal conflict would have resulted. However, in nearly every case, the “truthsayer” maintained that he or she was correct. In direct opposition to the wishes of many regulars, these individuals occasionally resorted to reposting their documents at irregular intervals, and either ignored further responses or engaged in long flame wars, continuing to insist that they know the truth. Catherene, who believes that vampirism is caused by a previously undiscovered retrovirus, periodically posts “related” news articles (which generally mention neither vampires nor retroviruses), even though group members have repeatedly asked her not to post these. She continues to post, however, explaining that she does so not for the regulars, but for those individuals who lurk (read, but do not post) and may be receptive to her claims:
Oh, I fully realize that this post will be jumped on and I shall be called a liar by one of the 'clickish' 25 who founded this board. [...] I expect this kind of abuse of anything I post. I continue to do so, even though I was asked and then ordered not to post here, in the hope some of the more silent readers have more open minds and at least will read and perhaps remember where you heard it first. In the end they shall all have the proof they say does not exist and when presented with such proof from other authorities they will still insist it is all lies .
The extended arguments that result from posts like this have, in the past, consumed nearly all conversation within the group, until almost every thread is dedicated to them. A common theme was for regulars to point out that the FAQ for alt.vampyres specifically states that it is a newsgroup created for the discussion of the vampire in literature, mythology, and film, and that any discussion of the vampire in reality should be of a speculative nature: “This group is for the discussion of vampyre mythology, such as the psychology, physiology, and relation of the vampyre to modern-day human life, and the distribution of original fiction, such as stories or poetry, that are within the vampyre realm” . However, others claimed that the FAQ was somewhat vague as to exactly what comprised an appropriate post, indicating that nowhere in the FAQ did it say that vampirism as a real medical or supernatural condition and related theories could not be discussed, and further, that until such “truths” were accepted by the scientific community, they would be perceived as modern mythology, which could be interpreted as being completely on topic in alt.vampyres.
In January of 1998, after a great deal of flaming, the concern was raised that the alt.vampyres community was in danger of disintegrating:
What is (in part) really destroying this newsgroup is not their [the "truthsayers"] arrival, per se (a simple 'you bore me: fuck off' once it is established there is no truth in their claims should be sufficient to end the conversation); what's destroying the 'feel' of this newsgroup is the long-drawn-out hammering and bad feelings that results from trying to get an admission from these people that they don't have physical evidence for their claims. As i have stated in the past; if they're delusional enough to believe that their 'theories' are true, then there is no point aiming a logic-gun at them and firing it. They're effectively immune to the rays .
It was then suggested that the FAQ be revised such that claims of absolute vampiric knowledge would be off-topic. Theories would still be acceptable as long as they were presented as such, but “truthsayers” would no longer be welcome and would find no loopholes in the FAQ with which to justify their posts. However, the group seemed divided; some believed that revising the FAQ would solve the problem, while others felt it would do nothing at all, or perhaps make the situation worse, as pointed out by Chiller:
What will happen if we add this to the FAQ?
Residents of alt.V will simply take it as carte blanche to flame the "truthsayers" ad nauseam in the name of the FAQ - which is in fact what has already been happening. I have not seen this have any effect whatsoever upon SeekerSA [Catherene] or WingedWolf, both of whom seem to regard it as an evil necessity of existing on alt.V, something which must simply be "put up with".It is quite possible that flaming "truthsayers" helps them feel put upon and thereby even more heroic for keeping up the "good work", no? In other words I believe that incessant flaming, with or without a FAQ to back it up it may be making the situation worse rather than better.
If the FAQ is amended, what weight does that carry with the "truthsayers"?
We can say to "truthsayers": "Hey guys -- check out the FAQ and then fuck off"; but I suggest that if a simple "fuck off" was not sufficient in the first place, one embedded in the FAQ will fare little better, unless someone can show me that a FAQ is sufficient reason to have people kicked off NGs by sysadmins .
In recognition of the potential problems presented by Chiller, it was further suggested that, not only should the FAQ be changed to essentially outlaw the discussion of vampirism as a real condition, but that a new newsgroup be created specifically for such discussion. After much debate, two conclusions were reached. The first was relative agreement that the FAQ should be changed, resulting in several additions which clearly made any claims of factual knowledge without supporting proof off-topic in alt.vampyres . The second was almost unanimous support for the creation of alt.culture.vampires, a newsgroup dedicated to the discussion of real vampires and vampirism in the modern world. Although these actions did little to reduce the amount of flaming on alt.vampyres, and did not cause the “real” vampires to move to alt.culture.vampires as had been hoped, the amount of infighting was drastically reduced. It would seem that by working together as a community to redefine the rules of conduct, the members of alt.vampyres were able to reestablish a sense of solidarity and boundedness; concerns about the potential destruction of alt.vampyres virtually disappeared. This assertion is enforced by Derek Foster’s observations, in that the “…spirit of community is essential to the viability of virtual communities. That which holds a virtual community intact is the subjective criterion of togetherness, a feeling of connectedness that confers a sense of belonging” (1995: 7).
A certain amount of conflict within a Usenet newsgroup is unavoidable; at the heart of Usenet is communication, conversation, and debate. Ideas are presented and refuted, proof is demanded and debunked. Conflict can be civil, especially when the individuals involved in the disagreement consider themselves to be friends and do not wish to offend each other. However, when tempers flare and manners are forgotten, flame wars can be vicious, long, and insidious. “…if one person writes a nasty response to another’s message, the result is not just the creation of animosity between two people, but the creation of a hostile group environment…” (Baym, 1996: 319). Eventually, extreme solutions are suggested by group members, such as kill-files (programs used to render posts by or about certain individuals invisible to the news reader employing them) or even registering complaints with the offending individual’s system administrator or service provider (McLaughlin & Osborne, 1995: 105; Kollock & Smith, 1994: 4.3), though this can be difficult even if the individual resorts to foul or abusive language, threats of stalking or physical violence, or racist or sexist remarks. As eloquently stated by an alt.vampyres regular; “Are words in the FAQ sufficient reason to demand that sysadmins discipline their users for posting here? I think most sysadmins will look at the ‘truthsayers” posts, see no swearing, and conclude that – as this NG is unmoderated – they have caused no slight and it is still up to us to deal with the perceived problem” .
It was not until the core members of alt.vampyres feared for the survival of their community that the problematic presence of certain individuals and the incessant flame wars that erupted because of them were understood within the group as serious threats. Their fears were based on an increasing lack of cohesiveness within the community, and the development of formidable hostility between certain factions; though flame wars are nothing new to alt.vampyres, certain posts questioning the purpose and scope of the newsgroup raised concerns that the community was, in fact, falling apart at the seams. It has been theorized that”…conflict within a group can only be functional at all, if its members are agreed on core values, since conflict over core values destroys the group” (Fallding, 1990: 53). Indeed, it was when group members began to reconstruct a definition for the community that fears of utter destruction were allayed.
The FAQ itself is a means of creating a border around a Usenet community; not only does it answer the frequently asked questions which give it its name, it often delineates what is considered on-topic, sets out rules of conduct, and helps to establish a sense of belonging based on common interests and ideas. However, it has been demonstrated that FAQs are not foolproof, and virtual boundaries are easily crossed: “While there are many resources to construct boundaries in the Usenet, many of these boundaries exist only by voluntary compliance and are easily violated” (Kollock & Smith, 1994: 4.1)
When the boundaries presented by the FAQ are willfully ignored by outsiders to the group, the result is flaming. Tolerance for these individuals is close to nil; they do not contribute to the group in a way which individual group members find useful and yet they demand a disproportionate amount of attention while members attempt to debunk their claims or convince them to take those claims elsewhere. In Virtual Disability, Gerald Gold discusses the response of members of the MSN-L mailing list to aversive behaviour from group outsiders; this behaviour is mirrored exactly in the actions taken by alt.vampyres members: Though a list may be “unmoderated” and list membership is open and computer-controlled, many participants are protective of the boundaries of their newfound community and respond briskly to public messages which they judge to be inappropriate or offensive to the list community” (1997: 8). Any threat to perceived community boundaries can cause a major upheaval within the group: “It takes very few participants to upset or redefine a group’s social environment” (Baym, 1996: 319). If the alteration of environment has a negative affect on group dynamics (as was the case in alt.vampyres), efforts will be made to return the community to its original state. In alt.vampyres, this led to revision of the FAQ and the creation of alt.culture.vampires.
In forming alt.culture.vampires, the intention was not to split the community in two; in fact, many regulars on alt.vampyres expressed an interest in also becoming active members of alt.culture.vampires. This indicates that it was also not intended as a way of simply getting rid of offending individuals, since alt.vampyres regulars would, by necessity, interact with these individuals on alt.culture.vampires. The rationale behind creating a new newsgroup can be understood in a traditionally anthropological way: “…one response to growing populations is for bands to split and for ‘daughter’ groups to establish themselves in open territories on the original group’s boundary” (Wenke, 1990: 138). This response has also been noted in virtual communities: “The net is a moving frontier in that anyone feeling crowded can move on to form a new Usenet discussion group” (Nguyen & Alexander, 1996: 105). In reviewing the history of alt.vampyres and the ways in which group members have traditionally dealt with similar adversities, Baby Jinx noted that:
In the past, when a singular topic has become so overwhelming that it has threatened to splinter the newsgroup and overshadow its stated mission of being a place for broad discussion of the vampire realm, there is evidence that the acceptable manner of dealing with this problem has been for the proponents of the singular topic to split themselves from this newsgroup and create a place of their own for discussion specifically related to their concern.
So it became that such singular topics as the books of author Anne Rice or the mythologies and rules of vampire role-playing games attained their own status as places where these subjects could be discussed ad nauseum. Directions to these sites were then added to the alt.vampyres faq so that persons interested in this specific milieu could be referred there. In the long run, both alt.vampyres and these sister sites have benefitted from this arrangement .
Thus it would seem that it is not the population of the group which grows, but the scope of discussion; when the number of topics discussed reaches a critical point, it becomes necessary to relegate some of them to other places. Likewise, when one topic becomes so prominent that it overshadows all other discussion in the newsgroup, that topic must also find a new home. The single most important factor, however, is the desire to save the community from dissolution.
Alt.culture.vampires was created on Wednesday, February 11, 1998, largely because of the work of Chooch and the advice and technical assistance of klaatu. Shortly thereafter a FAQ  was written and is currently posted on my own website, as I am the FAQ keeper for alt.culture.vampires. On February 14, 1998, Chooch posted the following message to alt.vampyres, apparently in the hopes that those individuals who had caused so much stress within the community would simply pick up and move to the new newsgroup:
To all Real (TM) Vampires still here:
With the revision of the AV FAQ, this topic has now become off-topic for this newsgroup.
Do not despair, a new set of chambers has been prepared for your comfort
and convenience. This is not an eviction, merely a relocation.
I think you will enjoy your new quarters, especially now that the workmen have cleared the premises and the smell of fresh paint will disappear in time, hopefully to be replaced with a much more appealing odor of dankness and fresh blood.
Don't forget to say "Thanks" to the denizens of alt.vampyres for providing temporary quarters. We've left a forwarding address, I'm sure they'll be happy to provide directions for any friends that show up later looking for us, and will most likely be willing to misdirect the occasional mob of angry peasants long enough for their torches to burn out.
Please gather up your belongings here (don't forget the renfields!) and follow me. It's not far, just up a few levels, take a right, and it's a few doors down the hall on the left. You can't miss it, the sign on the door says alt.culture.vampires.
Welcome, and enter freely of your own will .
Currently, the flame wars between real(tm) vampires and their adversaries continue on alt.vampyres, though there is no longer any concern expressed over the potential destruction of the community. It was not, I believe, the actions of revising the FAQ and creating alt.culture.vampires which strengthened the community, but the symbolism of these actions; working as a group to overcome a perceived threat instilled in the members of alt.vampyres a sense of solidarity and common interest that allowed them to withstand the continued presence of aversive elements without fearing for the survival of the community.
1] To view the alt.vampyres FAQ, see http://www.altvampyres.net/newsgroup/faq/  Please refer to section 1.04 of the alt.vampyres FAQ at http://www.altvampyres.net/newsgroup/faq/traditional.shtml#1.04  To view Baby Jinx’s list of vampires, see Google Groups (Usenet Archive): “Re: help me” posted 1998/03/17 by B J Kuehl.  To view the full article see Google Groups (Usenet Archive): “Theory posted again because you all love me so.” posted 1998/01/24 by Winged Wolf.  To view the full article see Google Groups (Usenet Archive): “Re: Truthsayers” posted 1998/01/09 by B J Kuehl.  To view the full article see Google Groups (Usenet Archive): “Prolonged Human Lifespan and existance of vampires…” posted 1998/01/02 by Catherene.  To view version 4.2a of the FAQ see Google Groups (Usenet Archive): “Alt.Vampyres FAQ Version 4.2a” posted 1998/01/15 by Lucadra.  To view the full article see Google Groups (Usenet Archive): “importance being placed on upholding the faq..” posted 1998/01/20 by Chiller.  To view the full article see Google Groups (Usenet Archive): “[SUMMARY] What is the purpose of alt.vampyres?” posted 1998/01/25 by Chiller.  The revised alt.vampyres FAQ is available at http://www.altvampyres.net/newsgroup/faq/  See   To view the full article see Google Groups (Usenet Archive): “[SUMMARY] What is the purpose of alt.vampyres?” posted 1998/01/23 by B J Kuehl.  The alt.culture.vampires FAQ is available at http://www.altvampyres.net/newsgroup/faq/  To view the full article see Google Groups (Usenet Archive): “YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE” posted 1998/02/14 by Chooch.
Gold, Gerald L. 1997 “Virtual Disability: Sameness and Difference in an Electronic Support Group”, in press in P. Devlegier and F. Rusch eds., Similar and Different: Core Concepts and the Coming of Disability Studies. In press. University of Michigan Press.
Kollock, Peter, and Mark Smith. 1994 Managing the Virtual Commons: Cooperation and Conflict in Computer Communities. Available online at http://mailer.uni-marburg.de/~apel/bibl/vcommons.html
McLauglin, Margaret L. and Kerry K. Osborne. 1995 “Standards of Conduct on Usenet” in Steven G. Jones, ed., Cybersociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Nguyen, Dan Thu and Jon Alexander. 1996 “The Coming of Cyberspacetime and the End of the Polity” in Rob Shields, ed., Cultures of Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc.
~ Home ~
Thanks again to all my friends on alt.vampyres who didn’t flame me to oblivion when I asked
if I could study them… many would not have been so understanding. ; ) ~Thornleaf
This document copyright 1998 by Kristina Day